Prevention is better than cure, especially in the sphere of church discipline. As discipline cases can very easily consume a pastor’s time and energy, and even consume the pastor and his congregation, the prevention of church discipline should be a high pastoral priority.
And how do we do that?
We do it, first, by preaching, by regularly setting forth clear standards of Christian confession, character, and conduct in our regular preaching ministry. Our flock needs to know where the fences are, where the no-go areas are, and what to expect if they cross them.
Second, we prevent church discipline by pastoral visitation. We need to keep in close and regular contact with the sheep to gauge where they are in their walk with God. In those one-to-one situations we may detect small changes in belief, attitude, spirit or character that can be addressed before they become big and irreversible problems.
However, no matter how well we preach and pastor, no matter how much we try to prevent it, church discipline problems are going to arise. It’s therefore best to prepare the congregation, and especially the officebearers, before it arises.
Early in a a pastor’s ministry (not the first sermon, of course, but certainly within a few months) he should preach a sermon on church discipline, before he has to deal with any cases. That keeps the subject objective and avoids personalizing it. Points to make may include:
The necessity of church discipline
One Church order book puts it like this: “Any institution or society which is to function effectively must be well-ordered: it must have recognised means of correcting aberrations which threaten its integrity. This is true pre-eminently of the Church of Jesus Christ, whose witness in the world depends so intimately on the godly behavior of its members.”
The warrant for church discipline
This is not something thought up by legalistic control-freaks. Rather, it has divine warrant (Matthew 18:15-19). So important did the Reformers see church discipline that they included it as one of the marks of the church along with preaching and the sacraments.
The benefits of good church discipline
Listen to this comprehensive list of benefits from a Scottish book of Church order: “Church discipline and censures are of great use and necessity in the Church, that the name of God, by reason of ungodly and wicked persons living in the Church, be not blasphemed, nor his wrath provoked against his people; that the godly be not leavened with but preserved from the contagion, and stricken with fear; and that sinners who are to be censured may be ashamed, to the destruction of the flesh and saving of the spirit in the day of the Lord Jesus.”
The procedure for church discipline
The roolz! Don’t we just love ‘em!! Well, whether we love them or not we’d better get to know them, and get to know them fast. I know it is far more edifying and enjoyable to read the latest books from Reformation Heritage Books, but knowing the intricacies of the church’s discipline procedures could save a pastor’s ministry, and even save a soul.
As so many of the problems associated with church discipline arise from a lack of procedure, a failure to follow it, or an abuse of it, we must familiarize ourselves with the principles and the practice. If your church does not have any formal procedures, then find one that does, get their protocols, and copy or adapt their methods. Train the elders in this and also communicate to the congregation what they can expect, so that they are not taken by surprise or think that they are being unfairly treated.
Whatever we do, we must not abuse, shortcut or override the stated procedures, however tempted we are to do so. When some people are accused of sins, they train their sights on the procedures rather than their sin, and can easily turn the focus away from themselves, away from what they have done, and to what we have done or not done in the process.
The consequences of failed church discipline
If church discipline is not practiced, or if it is inconsistently or poorly practised, it can destroy a ministry, a congregation, or even a denomination. Paul says that failure to discipline can result in congregational sickness and even death (1 Corinthians 11:29-32). Jesus warns the church in Thyatira that his frown is upon them because of their failure to discipline a false teacher in their midst (Rev. 2:20-23).
The positive aim of church discipline
The ultimate aim of church discipline is not punishment but restoration (Gal. 6:1). Robert Murray McCheyne describes how he came to see the value of church discipline despite his initial reluctance to practice it.
When I first entered upon the work of the ministry among you, I was exceedingly ignorant of the vast importance of church discipline. I thought that my great and almost only work was to pray and preach. I saw your souls to be so precious, and the time so short, that I devoted all my time, and care, and strength, to labor in word and doctrine. When cases of discipline were brought before me and the elders, I regarded them with something like abhorrence. It was a duty I shrank from; and I may truly say it nearly drove me from the work of the ministry among you altogether. But it pleased God, who teaches His servants in another way than man teaches, to bless some of the cases of discipline to the manifest and undeniable conversion of the souls of those under our care; and from that hour a new light broke in upon my mind, and I saw that if preaching be an ordinance of Christ, so is church discipline. I now feel very deeply persuaded that both are of God – that two keys are committed to us by Christ: the one the key of doctrine, by means of which we unlock the treasures of the Bible; the other the key of discipline, by which we open or shut the way to the sealing ordinances of the faith. Both are Christ’s gift, and neither is to be resigned without sin.
Having prepared for Church discipline, we must also practice it, and we’ll look at that tomorrow.